Police officer claims he heard a gunshot Shooting account not corroborated

April 20, 1993|By Michael James and Joe Nawrozki | Michael James and Joe Nawrozki,Staff Writers

The Baltimore police officer who fatally shot an unarmed 14-year-old boy in the back as he tried to flee arrest claims that he heard a gunshot during the chase and returned fire, the officer's attorney said yesterday.

Although police investigators said they have nothing thus far to corroborate Officer Edward T. Gorwell II's story, "He believes there was a shot and that he needed to protect himself," said Henry L. Belsky, a lawyer for the city Fraternal Order of Police.

"He was returning fire," Mr. Belsky said. "The officer was chasing four suspects over a field, in the dark, and he was wearing his white uniform shirt. He was a perfect silhouette, a perfect target to be shot at."

Police spokesman Sam Ringgold said the officer, whose police powers have been suspended, made a statement at the scene that he had "heard someone fire a shot."

But no bullet casings were found other than that which came from the officer's gun, Mr. Ringgold said.

Officer Gorwell is assigned to desk duty at the Western District, pending the outcome of a grand jury probe of the shooting.

The incident occurred about 1 a.m. Saturday morning in Gwynns Falls Park when Officer Gorwell chased four youths who had bailed out of a stolen car.

Officer Gorwell fired one shot from his 9 mm Glock pistol during the foot chase, hitting Simmont Donta Thomas in the lower back. The youth was running up a grassy knoll over 20 yards away; the bullet traveled upward through his body and struck him in the heart, killing him, investigators said.

The officer, who was the only policeman on the scene at the time, was not immediately aware he had shot the boy, investigators said. He returned to his patrol car to report on his radio that the car theft suspects had run off into the woods, police said.

Minutes later, after other officers arrived, a resident in a home across the street from the park began flashing a house light on and off to alert police there was a body just over the crest of the grassy knoll, police said.

The Thomas youth, of the 1700 block of N. Warwick Ave. in West Baltimore, was pronounced dead at the scene. Both Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms have said the shooting is troubling and should be looked at by a grand jury.

Mr. Belsky said Officer Gorwell has a clean departmental record and "is taking this all very hard." He said the officer was not ready yesterday to speak publicly about the incident.

Mr. Belsky said he had no proof that someone shot at the officer, but he added, "People should realize what an officer goes through in that situation. He was chasing four suspects, and he didn't know if they were juveniles or adults.

"He doesn't know who he's chasing or how dangerous they are. There's no neon sign out there saying, 'I'm routine, I'm not dangerous,' " Mr. Belsky said. "That's a very tough situation for an officer to be in."

Officer Gorwell was patrolling the Western District in his cruiser Saturday night when he saw the car the youths were riding in. The car, a 1992 Chrysler New Yorker, was being driven erratically and the officer began following it, police said.

The officer radioed in the tag and learned the car was stolen Friday night from the Mondawmin Mall area. He followed the car before the driver lost control on a wet roadway in the 900 block of Ellicott Driveway.

The occupants, including the Thomas youth sitting in the back seat, jumped out of the car and ran across the field. The officer chased them, and during the pursuit the officer claimed he heard a shot, Mr. Belsky said.

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